Only last year, the South Devon Railway (SDR) celebrated 50 years since its first steam trains ran in 1969 between Buckfastleigh and Totnes on the southern fringes of Dartmoor, marking a remarkable achievement against many odds in that time.
Earlier this year, the SDR was looking forward to the start of its second half-century of bringing delight to thousands of visitors to the line, and things were looking good until mid-March when the whole world changed almost overnight.
The SDR suddenly had to stop running all trains from 17 March as the railway not only needed to play its part in the global battle to halt the spread of Coronavirus, but also after visitors just disappeared in the light of further Government advice on social distancing. With so few passengers, it didn’t even pay the daily coal bill.
Now, the SDR, a registered charity, desperately needs a rapid cash injection just to survive, and so it has just launched a striking ‘SOS’ video appeal to raise funds showing off some of the best images of the picturesque seven-mile railway.
It is appealing for financial support and donations of all sizes from its volunteers, supporters, regular visitors and the general public.
And, with no revenue now coming in from passengers, the SDR urgently needs cash help to replace the lost income during this unprecedented period of total uncertainty to ensure that this scenic, and quintessential former Great Western Railway branch line can be kept alive for future generations of visitors to enjoy.
With the line now not expected to re-open for three months until the end of June or early July, maybe longer, and so over halfway through the SDR’s running season, the railway estimates that it will need to raise up to £500,000 to stay in business.
The appeal has got off to a good start with £20,000 separately pledged already by the railway’s volunteer support organisation, the South Devon Railway Association.
The South Devon Railway is the oldest heritage railway in the West Country and one of the region’s most popular tourist attractions, contributing around an estimated £15 million to Devon’s economy every year.
It’s almost become as much a part of the beautiful Devon countryside as the trees, fields and cows, and fits perfectly into the River Dart scenery and rolling hills like a familiar, well-worn glove.
Normally, steam trains run throughout the year from March to November and carry around 100,000 passengers every year, including thousands of children and their parents at the SDR’s annual Day Out With Thomas events, but this year it will be lucky to see half that figure.
Generations of volunteers have restored and built the line over the last 50 years to become the popular heritage railway it is today, and the Coronavirus outbreak has put their decades of hard work at considerable risk through no fault of the SDR.
To compound the SDR’s plight, it also has two bridges that need urgent and costly repairs; track works to complete; carriages that still need overhauling, and it has just come out of a difficult winter having invested heavily in the line’s track and infrastructure.
As a result of the enforced shutdown of the line, the SDR will lose some significant and normally busy events and revenue in 2020, including Easter weekend, its Day Out With Thomas weekend in May, the planned May VE-Day Bank Holiday, late May Bank Holiday and half-term week, and the July military weekend. All huge money hits.
As a result, it desperately needs to replace that lost income in order to carry on with vital maintenance so it can get up and running again as soon as possible when the Government says it is safe to do so again.
The SDR is determined to keep the line alive but needs help now to plug the financial hole to ensure the survival of the railway and all that it brings to the local economy and to tourism in Devon for future generations. Any help whatsoever is vital to the railway at this very difficult time.
And, since the appeal went live just a few hours ago today (Sunday 5 April), it had already raised over £1,000 from supporters, so a great start!
The SDR will also use Facebook Fund-raiser for people to share with one another, and they can also have the SDR as their “Birthday Fundraiser” which is something a number of SDR supporters plan to use after the launch today.
And, to view the SDR’s professionally produced and striking two-minute video, which draws on footage and images from SDR volunteers, please see below.
While no trains are running, the line is being maintained and regular security patrols are taking place. People are being advised they must not trespass on the railway during this period which would put themselves and others at risk of injury.
Sadly, the SDR’s insurance policy apparently does not cover loss of earnings due to a pandemic and, even if it qualifies for Government loans, they have to be repaid which would put yet another strain on the railway’s fragile finances.
Whilst the SDR is obviously seeking to take advantage of the Government’s financial assistance during the period of the Coronavirus crisis, that help will not cover all the financial loss of having no income for what could be an indefinite period.
The majority of SDR paid staff have been asked to make a personal sacrifice for the railway by taking a furlough period which takes them out of work for up to three months, but the Government’s scheme will pay 80 per cent of their salary.
The SDR normally employs up to 50 full and part-time staff at the height of the season, but also relies solidly on around 600 regular volunteer workers to run the trains, help in the workshops, repair the track and maintain the lineside, staff the booking offices, signal boxes and stations, and without whom the SDR would not exist.
It’s always been a simple equation: no volunteers equals no railway!
But, with a good number of its volunteer workforce being retired and older people, the Coronavirus crisis has also meant that many regular workers would be unable to unable to offer their services anyway due to health concerns and being at risk of possible infection.
After considering Government health advice at the time, the SDR ran its last public trains on the weekend of 14 and 15 March, 2020 for its popular Spring Steam Gala featuring visiting former Ashburton branch line favourite ex GWR engine No. 4555.
But with so few passengers then travelling on Monday 16th and Tuesday 17th, the railway had no choice but to close in the light of ever mounting costs and increasing Government Covid-19 health advice and guidance.
For people who already have their own Virgin Moneygiving accounts, the SDR’s Virgin Moneygiving link is also live at: